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Steubenville merger questions raised, as Monforton calls clergy meeting

Update: Two hours after the publication of this report, priests of the Steubenville diocese were notified that the Sept. 28 meeting had been canceled, because information about the meeting had been “leaked to outside sources.”

After Steubenville’s Bishop Jeffrey Monforton called for a Thursday morning “virtual conference” for the priests of his Ohio diocese, questions have been raised about whether a shelved merger plan for the diocese could soon be taken up again — with or without Monforton at the helm.

Bishop Jeffrey Monforton. Credit: Diocese of Steubenville.

The planned Sept. 28 meeting has raised questions in Steubenville because its announcement came suddenly, and, according to sources in the diocese, lay chancery staff were not informed it would be taking place. Sources say the bishop has also cancelled planned engagements in the diocese ahead of the Thursday meeting.

The gathering of priests comes nearly a year after Monforton first announced last October that a process was underway to see the eastern Ohio diocese merged with the neighboring diocese of Columbus. 

Monforton said that process could be a “template” to “assist other dioceses” facing the prospect of merger. But priests and laity in Steubenville pushed back on Monforton’s approach. 

Diocesan clergy argued that Monforton had undertaken no consultation with them before beginning to plan the merger process, and before announcing that the merger was a certainty - even while it had not yet received approval from Pope Francis.

The bishop had instead relied for advice on a small group of lay advisors, most of whom worked in business, he told The Pillar last year.

After 18 priests and deacons of the Steubenville diocese wrote to the U.S. bishops’ conference in October 2022, Monforton announced that he had requested the USCCB cancel a planned consultative vote on the matter, and the prospective merger seemed at least temporarily shelved. 

But Vatican officials have told The Pillar that the merger process still remains the most likely future for the Steubenville diocese — though it will likely involve considerably more engagement with clergy and laity than Monforton has conducted. 

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Last October’s announcement came amid a tumultuous period for the Steubenville diocese, and for Monforton personally.

In addition to controversy over the merger, The Pillar reported last year that Monforton was subject to two separate Vatican-ordered Vos estis lux mundi investigations for his handling of sexual abuse allegations.

In July 2022, the Steubenville diocese settled a lawsuit with a woman who in 2018, when she was 17, became pregnant after a relationship with Henry Foxhoven, then a Steubenville priest in his 40s. The lawsuit alleged that the woman was groomed as a teenager by the priest, and that Monforton had received several reports about Foxhoven's inappropriate conduct.

Foxhoven was reportedly suspended for one week in 2017, after reports of inappropriate behavior with a teenage girl at a wedding reception, and directed to get counseling.

The bishop has previously declined to comment on the Vos estis investigations in the diocese. Sources in the Steubenville diocese say they have received no indication of whether the investigations have been formally closed.

Several Steubenville priests also told The Pillar last year that they believed the Steubenville diocese had been mismanaged during Monforton’s tenure, and deserved a shot at new leadership before a decision was made on whether to merge the diocese. 

Some priests pointed to the 2020 convictions of a former finance officer and diocesan vicar general, who each admitted that they had embezzled hundreds of thousands from the diocese. Others pointed to Monforton’s alleged mishandling of several cases of sexual misconduct, while some raised flags about a scrapped cathedral renovation that had cost the diocese more than $1 million before it was eventually called off.

The interior of Steubenville’s Holy Name Cathedral, which was closed in 2014 for renovations, and has not subsequently reopened.

But other priests have told The Pillar that even with good management, the diocese would have struggled to staff parishes, and to pay the bills for its central administrative offices, priest pensions and healthcare, and other needs. 

In February, the Diocese of Steubenville announced that it would undergo an external audit of its financial viability and current financial management, as part of ongoing deliberations regarding the prospect of its merger.

The audit was ordered by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, a spokesman told The Pillar, and was to be overseen by Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati, along with public accounting firm Schneider Downs, and diocesan finance officers from Cincinnati, Columbus, and Youngstown. 

Results of that audit have not been released to the public.

The Steubenville diocese is home to fewer than 40,000 Catholics in 13 counties of Appalachian southeastern Ohio, who are served by 36 active priests, according to the diocese. According to its website, the diocese has nine seminarians.

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Given the Vos estis investigations against him, and the Vatican-ordered financial audit of the Steubenville diocese, it is also possible that Monforton might soon announce he is stepping down from diocesan leadership, or that the Vatican has reassigned him to a position of less responsibility. 

The bishop, 60, was ordained in 1994 a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit. In addition to parish assignments, he was for seven years a priest secretary to Cardinal Adam Maida, and taught theology at Sacred Heart Seminary for three years. Monforton was named Steubenville’s bishop 2012.

Some priests in recent months have speculated that he might eventually return to Michigan, especially given eroding trust between Monforton and the Steubenville clergy after the fracas over the merger, and other administrative issues.

If Monforton does leave Steubenville, some priests in the diocese told The Pillar that they expect that Bishop Earl Fernandes of Columbus could be appointed apostolic administrator of the diocese, which could eventually make easier the prospective merger of Steubenville into Columbus. 

A spokesman for the Steubenville diocese declined to comment on the scheduled Sept. 28 meeting.

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